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“We were directed to doctor the data to allow the schools to become eligible.”

—Former employee of the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), who claims that LDOE employees under former State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and in “at least the first year” of his successor, John White, were directed to skew data to allow several charter schools in the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans to become eligible for several million dollars in federal grants.

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The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) for at least three years manipulated qualification requirements for several New Orleans charter schools so that they would qualify for millions of dollars in federal grants, according to a former LDOE employee who now works for a parish school district and who asked that his name not be revealed.

The employee told LouisianaVoice that the practice started under former Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and continued at least in John White’s first year as superintendent.

He said the recipients were “four or five” schools in the Recovery School District in New Orleans and all were charter schools. “LDOE employees were told to manipulate the data to allow the schools to qualify for the federal grants and each of the schools was subsequently approved.”

He said the data were also skewed in some instances to block grant eligibility for other schools.

One criterion was that the school be a failing school, he said. “These were new charter schools, so they were not actually ‘failing’ schools, but we were directed to doctor the data to allow the schools to become eligible.” He did not name the charter schools that received the grants.

He said the other criterion was for “conditional” schools. He added that the federal Department of Education is moving toward making “conditional” the single criterion for grant eligibility.

The former LDOE employee said he did not recall the exact amounts awarded the schools but that the total for all four was “several millions of dollars.”

He also touched briefly on the current accusations that the refusal by LDOE employees of requests to adjust the LEAP and iLEAP scores for the RSD was at least partly to blame for the delay in releasing school test scores until Tuesday of this week (May 20).

“The department (LDOE) did that for schools all over the state last year,” he said.

He said there was no logical reason for the delay in releasing the test scores, a delay that has thrown some school districts into a state of chaos—particularly those that have already completed their school year. Schools in those districts still don’t know which students will be required to take courses during the summer to bring their grades up.

Students in other school districts who may have been told they were exempt from finals because of outstanding grades are now finding that they have to take finals after all.

An LDOE official, speaking for White, said despite the prevailing belief, there was no set schedule for the release of the test scores—even though educators and administrators across the state were in accord in the belief that the scores were to have been released last Friday.

“There was no reason for the delay,” the former LDOE employee said. “DRC (Data Recognition Corp., of Maple Grove, Minnesota) had everything done well in advance of last Friday. The test scores should have been released on time.”

DRC is the vendor under contract to LDOE for testing and test grading of the LEAP and iLEAP tests.

The firm presently has two contracts with the department totaling $111.7 million.

The first, Contract No. 603573, is for $66.5 million and runs from Sept. 1, 2003 through June 30, 2015. It calls for DRC to test grades three through nine in English, language arts, mathematic science and social studies, and to administer criterion referenced testing in grades three through seven and grade nine from Sept. 1, 2003 through June 30, 2008.

Contract 704708 is for $48.2 million and runs from July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2015. That contract calls for DRC to provide support services related to LDOE’s current assessment program which includes the developing of test forms, printing, distributing and collecting materials, coring and reporting for LEAP, iLEAP and other standardized tests.

 

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When it comes to submitting and verifying employee travel expense claims, it appears that the Recovery School District (RSD), in keeping with past performances as reflected in several state audits, is somewhat sloppy in approving what appear to be questionable travel expense reports by RSD employees.

Three unclassified RSD employees submitted itemized expense reports for travel in their personal vehicles covering a single month for one of the employees and multiple months for the remaining two. Though the reports covered at least five days of travel, each report summary sheet appeared to have been completed on a single day.

Even more curious was the uniformity in the case of each traveler’s giving the departure and return times for each trip.

James Delano Ford, Deputy Superintendent for the RSD and who is paid $145,000 per year, listed nine separate trips during April and May of this year. Seven of those trips were from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and one was from New Orleans to Claiborne Parish and the other from New Orleans to Caddo Parish. The latter two trips would involve round trip distances in excess of 600 miles but for all nine trips, Ford listed his departure time on his trip summary sheet as 6 a.m. and his arrival time back in New Orleans as 3 p.m. the same day.

On the individual travel expense statement form, however, he listed his departure time as 6 a.m. and his return time as 6:01 a.m. for each trip.

His trips to Baton Rouge were listed as having been taken on April 11, 16, 18, and 25 and on May 6, 9, and 13. The trip to Caddo Parish was given as April 26 and to Claiborne on April 29.

Tracy Guillory, RSD Executive Director of Achievement at $115,000 per year, claimed only five trips, all for the month of June. Three were to St. Helena Parish on June 11, 18 and 26, and two were to Shreveport on June 7 and 21. The two to Shreveport were to Lanier Academy, the same school visited by Ford in April.

His five individual travel expense statement forms each listed his time of departure as 6 a.m. and his return to New Orleans as 12 noon and his trip summary sheet listed the same departure and return times for the Shreveport trips, two of the St. Helena trips gave departure times as 6:30 a.m. and return times as 8:15 a.m. while the third gave a 6:45 a.m. departure time and a return time of 8:30 a.m.

Dana Peterson, Deputy Superintendent of External Affairs at $125,000 per year, was the busiest traveler, racking up 23 trips from Feb. 19 through June 8.

He is the husband of State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-N.O.) who also is the State Democratic Party Chairperson.

His report included trips to St. Landry on Feb. 19 and March 18 and 21; Pointe Coupee on May 8 and 16, St. Helena on May 9 and Baton Rouge on March 22 and 25, April 1, 5, 9, 12, 16, 17, 18, 24, 25, and 29, May 1, 2, 20, and 21 and June 8.

June 8 was a Saturday.

And while he never bothered to list a departure and arrival time on his trip summary sheet, he, like the other two, was consistent in listing his departure times on each trip as 6 a.m. and his return time as 12 noon.

Eight of Ford’s nine individual trip reports were each computer dated May 21, 2013 with the lone exception being the May 2 date on his Claiborne Parish trip report. One of Tracy Guillory’s individual trip reports was dated July 22 and the other four July 24 while 22 of Peterson’s individual trip reports were stamped July 11. There was no individual trip report for the June 8 trip.

In each individual’s case, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard, whose $225,000 salary is second only to Superintendent of Education John White’s $275,000, by his signature, certified that the expense accounts were “just and true,” and each of the travel expense reports was audited by Administrative Business Official Shaundra D. Moore—on May 30 for Ford, July 11 for Peterson and July 29 for Guillory.

State regulations require that whenever a state vehicle is not available, “a rental vehicle should be used…for all travel over 99 miles.” The state’s contract for rental cars is with Enterprise Car Rentals and in an apparent effort to discourage the use of private vehicles, regulations stipulate that for trips of 100 miles or more in a private vehicle, “the traveler will reimbursed for mileage on the basis of 51 cents per mile only, not to exceed a maximum of 99 miles per round trip and/or day.”

Each of the 37 trips made by the three exceeded 100 miles and each charged for the maximum of 99 miles.

Guillory also made nine other trips in September but used a state vehicle for those trips.

With such lax procedures as allowing reports for several months to be compiled and submitted on a single day and with no real oversight in place (each of the travelers was in a senior management position with little or no real supervision), it would seem a simple matter to pad travel expense reports to make up for the 99-mile restriction—especially given the fact that some of these trips exceeded 600 miles round trip.

Why else, considering the cost of fuel these days, would an employee agree to use his or her own vehicle at a reimbursement rate of less than 20 percent of the mileage traveled on those trips to Caddo and Claiborne parishes? It simply does not make sense to do that unless…

And the uniformity of the departure and return times on each of the reports certainly raises additional questions as to their validity. There’s no way to possibly make a trip from New Orleans to Shreveport and back to New Orleans in six hours.

It’s a system that invites abuse.

We’re just sayin’…

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If public humility is your thing, all you have to do is appear before a state legislative committee or state commission unprepared to provide answers to even the most basic of questions.

That’s what happened last Friday in two separate legislative committee rooms during meetings of the State Bond Commission and the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) during discussions of capital outlay projects and BA-7 requests, respectively.

BA-7s are budget request forms used to make changes in revenues and/or expenditure line items during the year. Agencies submit them to the Division of Administration (DOA) Budget Office and if approved there, they are placed on the monthly agenda of the JLCB for consideration.

Bond Commission Chairman State Treasurer John Kennedy was particularly rankled over the shifting of construction projects to be replaced by $5 million in capital improvements to the LSU Health Sciences Building in Shreveport which is being taken over by Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana (BRF).

After Mark Moses of State Facility Planning and Control submitted changes to the commission, Kennedy said, “In July, you said the list was top priority and shovel ready. Now you’re saying they are not. What changed?”

“Cash flow needs have changed,” Moses said. “We’re shifting money. Eighteen projects are complete and on 76 others, there has been no activity and if the need is not there, we shift the dollars.”

“Why did you say in July that they were top priority?” Kennedy asked again. “The problem is if we replace them with something else, the original projects go to the back of the line. We’re shutting 90 projects down even though we have already spent money on some of them and now we’re sending those projects to the back of the line.”

Kennedy then launched into his ongoing criticism of the privatization of the Louisiana Medical Center at Shreveport and E.A. Conway Medical Center in Monroe. “We’re making $5 million in capital improvements to the Health Science Center. Who’s going to own that?”

Liz Murrill, DOA chief legal counsel, said, “We own the building. They (BRF) are leasing it.”

“We’re spending $4.8 million on scanner clinical and research imaging equipment for Biomedical Research Foundation…”

“This is a non-state entity. The dollars are being used for a public purpose,” Murrill said.

“Like an NGO (non-government organization)? We’re just giving it to them?”

“We’re providing money for this piece of equipment,” she said.

“Do we require them to file quarterly reports?”

“It’s contemplated it will be used for a public purpose,” she said, failing to answer his question.

Kennedy then asked if the legislative auditor would be able to audit the expenditure of the funds to which Murrill said, “I assume so, just as with any capital outlay projects.”

“One of the conditions of the agreement is there would be no public record,” Kennedy said, referring to a clause in the certificate of agreement between the LSU Board of Stuporvisors and BRF which says, “Financial and other records created by, for or otherwise belonging to BRF or BRFHH (BRF Hospital Holdings) shall remain in the possession, custody and control of BRF and BRFHH, respectively,” and that “such records shall be clearly marked as confidential and/or proprietary,” and thus protected from Louisiana public records laws.

“A public record is a public record,” Murrill said somewhat tentatively. “We have procedures to decide what is public record.”

“Who decides what’s public?” Kennedy asked.

“It depends on who gets the request.”

“Do you have a problem adding a condition to these purchases on the legislative auditor’s being able to audit the purchases?”

“I think that’s the case now,” Murrill said.

“Why are we buying this for the Biomedical Center instead of LSU?” Kennedy asked.

Mimi Hedgecock of the LSU School of Medicine—and formerly Jindal’s policy advisor—said the purchase was part of the partnership with BRF prior to the certificate of agreement between LSU and BRF.

“Is it accurate to say we have not picked an operator of the hospital yet?” Kennedy asked. “The testimony before the Louisiana Joint Budget Committee was they (BRF) were going to pick an operator. We’re entering a 99-year lease and don’t know who is even going to run the facility. The legislature has no say. How can we audit if we don’t know who’s running it? We can’t audit HCA (Hospital Corp. of America).

“This makes a mockery of the capital outlay procedure,” Kennedy said. “You’re supposed to be building a priority of projects. In July, you cam to us and said these projects were absolutely top priority and (were) shovel ready. Now they’re not shovel ready or top priority. Now we have new projects and these projects are going to the back of the line. I don’t think this is a good way to do business.”

Joint Budget Committee

Things got even testier at the Joint Budget Committee, thanks to the amateurish performance of witnesses appearing on behalf of the Recovery School District (RSD), just another ongoing embarrassment for the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE).

The fun began when committee member Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro), who also serves as House Appropriations Committee chairman, questioned RSD’s claim to having $34 million in self-generated funds for the projects it was submitting.

“Explain how you self-generated $34 million,” he said. “It’s unusual for RSD to self-generate that many dollars.

The breakdown given was $27.13 million in new market tax credits, $3.37 million from insurance proceeds and $4.05 million from Harris Capital funding for construction of Wheatly and McDonough 42 schools.

Fannin responded that the way the budget was presented was “confusing.” He said he was seeing too many “other” expenditures on the BA-7 submitted by RSD. “You have legal expenses of $800,000,” he said. “I never saw legal expenses of $800,000 to rebuild two schools.”

“Those legal fees pay for 82 schools—the entire master plan,” said RSD spokesperson Annie Cambre.

But it was Sen. Ed Murray (D-New Orleans) who peppered the RSD types with a barrage of withering questions—withering because the RSD representatives were woefully ill-prepared with answers much as State Superintendent John White has been since his appointment in January of 2012.

Murray asked about the expenditure of $375,000 in funds for engineering and architectural costs before RSD had authority to spend the money. “Are we using any of this $375,000 to pay them already?” he asked.

“Most were paid from multiple fund sources,” responded a young, unidentified red-headed RSD representative who more resembled a high school FBLA member than a public education professional.

“Let me ask my question again,” Murray said. “Are we using any of this $375,000 to pay them already?”

“For some of them, yes. Some are eligible from FEMA, some not,” said Red.

“Then why are we just now getting this request if we’re already using the money?”

“We already had some authority but we just realized we need additional authority.”

Murray, beginning to show his exasperation, then asked, “How much of the $375,000 have we spent so far?”

“I don’t know,” said Red. “I can get that for you.”

“It disturbs me that we’re spending money without authority to do so,” Murray said. “Let’s go to the legal expense of $800,000. How much of that have we spent?”

“Again, I don’t have that exact number,” said Red. “I can get that for you.”

“Mr. Chairman,” Murray said to committee Chairman Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville), “can we get them to come back next month when they have answers?”

“That would seem appropriate,” said Donahue. “There’re a lot more questions than answers.”

Bordelon, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the request said, “It’s important that everyone understand the timing of the Wheatly-McDonough projects. There will be several thousand students affected by any delay. The New Market tax programs and closing times are specific. Timing is of the essence.”

“We’d like to help you guys,” Donahue said, “but when you come here you don’t have sufficient information to answer questions. I don’t know how you think we can approve something when you can’t answer questions about the money you’re asking for that you’ve already spent and how many dollars are involved.”

“We were utilizing previously granted authority,” Bordelon said.

“I appreciate that,” Bordelon said, “but on the other hand, you’re already spending it and didn’t come for authority to do that until you started spending the money. And when members ask how many dollars have already been spent, and you can’t answer, that’s a problem.”

“It was my understanding we were operating under previously granted authority,” Bordelon persisted.

“That’s not what was said,” Bordelon said. “That was not the testimony. The testimony was you were already spending that money but you don’t know how many dollars were spent.”

Murray’s motion to defer action until next month passed unanimously and Murray then had one last word of advice to Bordelon.

“You say this is going to affect ‘several thousand students.’ I’m pretty familiar with Wheatly and McDonough 42. You don’t have several thousand students in those two schools. We want you, when you come before this committee, to tell us accurate information.”

Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) added, “When you come back, be prepared to discuss the oddly round legal expenses and issues related to that.”

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In the late ‘60s psychologist Dr. Laurence J. Peter advanced what became known as the Peter Principle which said, in effect, that “In a hierarchically-structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence.”

Put another way: “The cream rises until it sours.”

A good case in point, of course, would be Michael Brown, the notoriously inept head of FEMA, as evidence by his botched effort at coordinating recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Brown had previously served admirably as commissioner of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association but that job hardly prepared him for handling a job of the magnitude of major hurricane recovery efforts.

The same may be said of John White, who despite his abysmal record as Louisiana Superintendent of Education, may soon be promoted to yet a new level of incompetence.

Rumors have persisted for several days now that White would be leaving his post at the end of the current legislative session, which must adjourn by June 6.

Those rumors reached a new pitch on Wednesday with word that White would be headed “for Duncanland” in June.

For those unfamiliar with the Obama cabinet, “Duncanland” would be Washington where Arne Duncan serves as Secretary of Education.

Before joining the Obama administration, Duncan served as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools whence controversial former Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas came.

White succeeded Vallas as RSD superintendent before being elevated to his current post by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) at the behest of Gov. Bobby Jindal in January of 2012.

BESE President Chas Roemer, contacted about the report that White was headed for Washington, said he had not heard any such report.

In White’s case, the Peter Principle could be traced from White’s minimal classroom experience as a Teach for America alumnus as well as his having attended an academy to train school superintendents whose credentials are questionable at best. That academy, the Eli Broad Academy consists of all of six weekends of classes spread over 10 months.

In recent weeks, White’s tenure has been marred by repeated courtroom setbacks over the funding formula for school vouchers, public records litigation, rejection by the legislature of BESE’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) formula for funding public education, and most recently, word of apparent efforts by course providers to fraudulently enroll more than 1100 students in Course Choice online classes that were to be paid for by the state from MFP funds.

It was the use of the MFP funds for that purpose that was ruled unconstitutional by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

BESE member Lottie Beebe of Breaux Bridge, a vocal opponent of both White and Roemer, said she had not heard the latest report though she acknowledged previous rumors of White’s departure.

“He is building a home in Baton Rouge,” she said by email. “If this proves true, he is acknowledging defeat. He will bail before he is fired!”

An email to White went unanswered.

Increasingly, it would appear that the cream may have risen and has now soured.

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